The big two issues in the 2008 elections - health care and the war - dominated the news out of the Capitol dome this week while (of course) more federal investigations into members of Congress slowly moved forward and yet another senate Republican announced his retirement.
President Bush vetoed the significant expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), but Democrats have vowed to pass it again, this time with a veto-proof majority. With the bill last receiving 265 votes in the House (including 45 Republicans), they may be able to pull it off.
On the war, members of Congress had their first chance to respond to Bush's increased $190 billion supplemental funding request for the next year of the War on Terror, the single biggest year thus far. The reaction? Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said the administration could not expect a "blank check" for the war (among other, more-colorful phrases) and Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the supplemental wouldn't be passed until next year, three months into the next fiscal year. Obey said his two conditions for passing a supplemental out of his committee would be to end combat operations by January 2009 and a surtax on income of 2 to 15 percent to pay for the bill. Obey later said he could be flexible and noted that he did not yet have the support of the party leadership.
Finally, it wouldn't be a week in Congress without more news on federal investigations into multiple members! This week:
- The Hill reports that a company implicated in the federal bribery investigation of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) won a $450,000 government grant, just like prosecutors said it did in the indictment.
- A little-known court ruling firmly gives the Senate Ethics Committee the authority to listen to the FBI-recorded tapes between Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and an oil company CEO convicted of bribery (and cooperating with prosecutors).
- On Tuesday, 21 members of Congress and a few Bush administration officials breathed a sigh of relief when attorneys for Brent Wilkes, the Republican fundraiser charged with bribing former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), were forced to withdraw their subpoenas of the members. House lawyers had argued that members were shielded by constitutional protections protecting them from having to disclose communications that were part of their official duties. The defense lawyer protested, saying "It’s almost as if these House members are saying, 'How dare you subpoena us?’ ...But we’ve got members who were on these plane flights with Mr. Cunningham, who were going to these dinners hosted by Mr. Wilkes. There’s a whole host of events that have nothing to do with the legislative process."
- Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) has had virtually every record he has covering the last 11 years subpoenaed by federal prosecutors in an ongoing corruption investigation. Doolittle's lawyer, however, is hinting at using the same defense Rep. Jefferson did earlier this year to protect the legislative files.
- While it's not a federal investigation (yet), Taxpayers for Common Sense has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate how an earmark could be inserted into a bill last year after Congress had passed it but before it was signed by the president. Media reports indicate that staff for Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) had requested it be inserted.
In the miscellany department:
- Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) raised $50,000 this spring from donors associated with a lobbying firm who within weeks received millions in earmarks from Reyes and other members of Congress associated with the firm.
- Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) reversed course and says he will finish out his term, despite the refusal of a federal judge to throw out his guilty plea.
- Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) will retire at the end of next year and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) has announced she will run for his seat.
- Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) was admitted to the hospital for a heart operation.
- Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) placed a hold on a gun control bill brought in response to the Virginia Tech shootings that would make it easier to deny gun purchases to the mentally ill. Coburn says he is concerned that the bill would create "a pathway by which individuals can lose their Second Amendment rights but no pathway through which they can gain them back if they're stable" and that the cost is too high.